WASHINGTON: Dozens of leaders descended on Washington Monday for the start of President Barack Obama’s first major U.S.-Africa summit, focused on trade ties but also overshadowed by war and disease.
Some 50 countries sent high-level delegations led by 35 presidents, nine prime ministers, three vice presidents, two foreign ministers and a king to the three days of talks and ceremony in the U.S. capital.
Washington is seeking stronger economic ties with Africa, having found itself outpaced by China and Europe on a continent where the International Monetary Fund expects to see 5.8 percent growth this year.
But health and security issues will also be high on the agenda with headlines dominated by news of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the rising threat of Islamist extremist insurgencies.
African delegates are due to hold a day of economic talks with U.S. officials and business leaders Tuesday, but first U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addressed them on civil rights concerns.
“Strong civil society and respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights – these are not just American values, they are universal values,” Kerry told activists.
Citing the example of South Africa’s late anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela, Kerry said that most Africans supported limiting their leaders to two terms in office.
“We will urge leaders not to alter national constitutions for personal or political gain,” Kerry said, shortly after meeting President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The United States has been urging Kabila to respect a constitutional limit and step down when the long-troubled country – the giant of central Africa – holds its next elections in 2016.
But, while the United States will push African leaders to respect democratic norms – and in particular to halt the persecution in some countries of homosexuals or the free press – trade will top the agenda.
Last year, Obama described Africa as “the world’s next major economic success story.”
The United States currently lags in third place in trade with Africa, far behind the European Union in first and China in second.
The White House insists that the summit initiative is not a belated response to Beijing’s growing investment and influence across the continent over the past decade.
But it is clear that China’s emergence is at the forefront of American minds. In an interview with The Economist Friday, Obama warned Africa to make sure it was getting a good deal from its new friend in Asia.
To counterbalance Chinese investment, the U.S.- Africa summit will push for the extension of AGOA, the U.S. law that grants commercial advantages to certain African products.
“My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai, but that there’s an ability for the African governments to shape how this infrastructure is going to benefit them in the long term,” he said.
Security officials were expected to focus on the threat posed to African governments by Islamist extremists and by civil war in countries like South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
They will discuss ways to act across cross-border attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram militants from Nigeria and Al-Shabab militants from Somalia.
For Obama, a central topic of the summit will be “finding ways to strengthen peacekeeping and conflict-resolution efforts by Africans.”
Before heading to Washington, Cameroon’s Paul Biya said he hoped the meeting would be an opportunity to discuss a regional strategy with Chad, Niger and Nigeria to combat Boko Haram.
Yet it is the public health crisis caused by the Ebola outbreak – which has left more than 800 people dead in West Africa since the start of the year – that could take center stage.
Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma scrapped plans to head to Washington as their nations battle the worst outbreak of the disease in history.